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Dangers of Reporting From the Front Lines; With Three Little Words the President puts the Press into Overdrive

Aired December 2, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to "Reliable Sources," where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. The media spotlight continues to focus overseas this morning as journalists scramble to cover the latest violence in Israel. And in Afghanistan, where the two-month old war continues to rage, the invading core of journalists seems to be in more danger than ever.

One bright spot, a Canadian journalist, who was held by the Taliban, released yesterday after being detained for seven days, but this comes on the heels of a deadly month for the reporters covering the war in Afghanistan. Eight journalists killed in November, the latest, a Swedish cameraman earlier this week.

Well, joining us to talk about the dangers of reporting from the front lines in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, CNN's Brent Sadler, in Boston Amy Kellogg, Correspondent for Fox News who has just returned from Pakistan, in New York Bill Spindle, Assistant Foreign Editor of the Wall Street Journal and here in Washington Donatella Lorch, a Veteran Foreign Correspondent for "Newsweek." Welcome all.

Our Brent Sadler in Afghanistan, Israel has obviously become a dangerous assignment for journalists. USA Today's Jack Kelley left a pizza place in Jerusalem a couple of months back seconds before suicide bomb went off there. Now Afghanistan, eight journalists killed in just a few weeks. How do you assess the level of danger there? Do you feel in jeopardy in your current assignment?

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Howard, it changes more or less by the day. There are some reports that al Qaeda Arab terrorists are coming into town. We heard that a 48 hours or so ago. There was gunfire and people at the hotel, who are staying out here, were beginning to get spooky. There are armed guards around me, you actually can't see them now, but there is couple of guys with AK-47s behind me, rocket-propelled grenades at the front entrance of the hotel here. But this is where most of the world's press are currently staying, here, the Spingar Hotel in Jalalabad.

We feel pretty OK at the moment, but when you get these reports of possible infiltrations by Arabs coming here, there was a report that al Qaeda people are coming with a pickup truck, guns and taken a cartload of vegetables out to their mountain hideouts which several hours drive from here. So those things certainly are concerning because, you will remember, not so very long ago, just a week or so ago, those journalists were gunned down on a road to Kabul, not just a few hours from here, about four hours from here. And of course, reports that there was $50,000 bounty on the heads of journalists issued by al Qaeda activists that also is of concern. And we've just taken delivery of an army truck here, so we've started using that to go out to areas outside the city where we're...

KURTZ: Right.

SADLER: ...always advised to pick up an armed guard or two to go along with us, so pretty dangerous -- Howard.

KURTZ: Pretty dangerous does seem to sum it up.

Amy Kellogg you've covered Chechnya, you are just back from Pakistan. I don't know if this question gets asked to woman more often, forgive me if it does, but why put yourself in the line of fire?

AMY KELLOGG, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I think, Howard, it's just a matter of curiosity and certainly when there is a huge story to cover you tend to forget about your own personal safety to a certain extent. That said, this war is very different. It's not just two sides going at it. It's so many different sides now involved, and I was in Islamabad I was not in Afghanistan.

So I wasn't exactly in the thick of things but was very close watching at all happen and realizing that it's not just the Taliban who might be coming after western journalists, but certainly, armed thugs, robbers, thieves people who want some money.

Journalists are enormous targets because they carry cash with them into Afghanistan because its a cash economy you can't use credit cards, they've got satellite phones, and there are just -- of course now, we're sort of on the brink, many fear, of a civil war in Afghanistan, which, of course, could spill into neighboring Pakistan. And the anarchy really, I think, is just sort of the different issue here in this war. It's not two sides. Certainly after September 11 the whole world has changed, and I think, the fact that caught us all so much by surprise makes us realize that anything can happen any where and certainly in a place like central Asia...

KURTZ: It often does, it often does.

KELLOGG:'s very very dangerous right now.

KURTZ: Donatella Lorch, you've covered past wars in Afghanistan, you've covered Iraq, you've covered Somalia. Does the current situation in Afghanistan, the eight journalists killed under varying circumstances, seem more dangerous to you or at least as dangerous as some of these past conflicts?

DONATELLA LORCH, "NEWSWEEK": It's definitely as dangerous if not more dangerous. The big difference, I think, with other conflicts is the large number of western journalists that are in Afghanistan right now, and that only -- they're really the only westerners in Afghanistan. There are hardly any aid workers, there's only a token few diplomats that come in and out of Kabul. So the main target -- if you're looking for a westerner, your only target is going to be a journalist. And there are so many shifting camps out there, you never know who you can trust.

There's also the whole problem with so many journalists over there, and the whole notion of the pressure of having to get a story, having to be the first camera there, having to get the first interview, getting as close as possible to that critical little, you know, -- we're closest to an al Qaeda member and we've interviewed him. I think there's also that pressure which makes it much more dangerous.

KURTZ: So the tension between wanting to get the best footage and most up close and personal sense of the war and worrying about your own safety.

LORCH: Worrying about your own safety is also a tremendous camaraderie. I mean, when you are out there you look after each other. It was the same thing in Somalia where we had to travel with armed guards constantly. We couldn't walk the streets, where seven journalists were killed in 93 alone in Mogadishu, and we really looked after each other. There's also tremendous concern.

I mean, there isn't a day when I was out there, that I didn't think of my own safety. You go out and do the story, but you always think, "Now, is that road passable, should we do this, should we not do that, do we have our bulletproof vests?" It's a different mentality, different way of thinking.

KURTZ: Bill Spindle, as an editor making decisions about other people's safety your reporters, for example, now in Kabul how do you decide? What factors do you weigh in deciding where they should stay? Where they should go? And how difficult is that process?

BILL SPINDLE, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": It's very difficult, we spend a huge amount of time, Howard, you know, we start by talking about the content and what they're going to write for a moment or two and then we spend the rest of the conversation figuring out how are they going to get there, what roads are they are going to go down, are they going to get on a armored convoy, who's going to go with them, is it going to be safe.

You know, you just have to start first levelheaded, smart reporters on the ground and then you walk through a conversation with them and try to, you know, get an idea how they are going to get there. So they've thought all of these things through. As an editor there have been two things I've really tried to do which is, be very cautious and tell them, you know, not give them the sense that they're in a huge competition to be there, as Donatella was saying, to be there first, to be closest, we want them first to be safe. So that's, sort of, where the conversation starts.

The next thing we don't want them doing is going down without a plan. We don't want them getting out of an armored convoy going to who knows where, we don't want them just getting in a car going down a road. We want to know how they're getting there, and that they've planned it out.

KURTZ: Right.

SPINDLE: That sort of.

KURTZ: Brent Sadler, in Jalalabad after two months of the Pentagon basically stiffing the press when it comes to accompanying ground troops, the Marines have now taken a handful of reporters. OK, I'm told that we don't have Brent Saddler any more so let me come back to Amy Kellogg with that question.

Why do you think the Marines after this two month period in which journalists were frustrated and not able to accompany U.S. ground forces, have now taking a few journalists into Afghanistan and will that change the nature of the coverage, the pictures we get of this war now that some American journalists are actually with the ground forces?

KELLOGG: Well, I think, Howard, they must feel that it's safe enough to be doing this. They've kind of cordoned off Kandahar at this point, and of course, as Brent was mentioning, there are Taliban fighters still holed up in some of the areas around the major cities from Jalalabad to Kabul to Kandahar, but they must feel that it's now clear enough to do that. I think it will be very important.

I think people want to see what's going on on the ground. There are certain people who say we don't need to know. Let the Marines, let the Special Forces do their thing and finish this mission, but certainly there are plenty of people who want to see what's going on. So I think that there is obviously a hunger for these pictures that, now, people at home will be able to see.

KURTZ: Right.

LORCH: And if I can interrupt, it's tremendously good PR for the U.S. military.

KURTZ: That's the way it's going to end.

LORCH: I mean, it's all -- the whole aim is the same reason that they showed us the videos of the rangers when they did the -- they parachuted in at night. It shows, we're there, we have our American flag, we are near Kandahar, we are digging trenches, we have an American presence, we are going out to get al Qaeda. You know, if they didn't show us those pictures, there'll be more and more questions saying, "Where's the U.S. military? Why don't we see them?" I mean...

KURTZ: And why the reluctance, until now, the Marines, of course, known for being very PR conscious in trying to protect their status as the (INAUDIBLE) service. Why the reluctance until now to allow this, which is obviously going to generate some positive stories?

LORCH: Well, first of all the Marines have only recently arrived. So, now they've started this pool system where they rotate journalists in with very strict rules, which is similar to the Gulf War and it will warm up as more and more troops go in there. They didn't want to put people in with Special Forces troops for very obvious reasons, when you go in with units of five, six, seven men.

You know, they really have to do their job. They can't have, you know, the camera crew, and the cameraman, and the producer, and the three print journalists, and the photographers who all say, "Now, hold on for a second we need to take a picture" and so, you can't do that with the SF troops. You can do it much more with large contingence of Marines.

KURTZ: You know, even as some news organizations are pulling journalists out of Afghanistan for safety reasons, it's become a kind of a magnet for some of the better known journalists. Let's take a look at one anchorman who arrived there on Friday.


DAN RATHER, "CBS NEWS": Good evening from Kabul, Afghanistan, where larger numbers of American troops are on the ground and on the move in an all-out effort to root out terrorism and help rebuild a broken nation.


KURTZ: Bill Spindle, why does Dan Rather and Geraldo Rivera and some other megastars of our business -- why are they going to Afghanistan now? And what does their presence really add, if anything, to the coverage?

SPINDLE: I think it did give them a profile. I think, Kabul has now certainly become safe enough that you can and easy enough to access that you can get in there now, set up an operation in downtown Kabul. We have two reporters there. We feel like it's pretty safe for them to be in the city. So, I think, that's part of it but it -- everybody wants to be on the scene and as close as they can get.

KURTZ: Amy Kellogg, the -- I should mention that I talked to Dan Rather on Friday and he told me that he felt that as a journalist, he wanted to see and feel and hear the action rather than just sitting at an anchor desk in New York. But now, that we have more journalists in the country and we're seeing more dead bodies and we're seeing more evidence of executions and that sort of thing, is this -- is the up close and personal nature of the coverage is going to change the way this war is perceived by Americans.

Before it was almost like a videogame war, most of the action occurring from the safety of 20,000 feet. Are we getting a different perception now because we're actually seeing dead soldiers?

KELLOGG: I think that certainly it is. There's going to be a huge shock factor now, and you now, I've been reading. I haven't actually seen the pictures of this but I've been reading the stories of bodies hanging in marketplaces in Mazar-e Sharif and in Konduz and -- I mean, now it's going to be very difficult stuff for the viewers to view, to see, and certainly, if it comes to U.S. troops dying and getting any sort of video of that, it's going to be very painful.

But, you know, I think at this point, everyone is anxious to just get up close and personal with this story. It's interesting though, a lot of journalists are racing in, Howard, to get up close and personal with the story, but there are also a lot of seasoned journalists, I've heard, who are holding back because there is this different quality to this situation in Afghanistan besides all the lawlessness and the sense that there may be some revenge killings and all of these robberies. There's also, you know, the issue of the landmines...

KURTZ: Yes, not a minor issue.

KELLOGG: ...And so many other danger issues, right.

KURTZ: It's a compelling story, but also obviously, a very dangerous one. We have to take a break, and when we come back, why does the public seem to trust the military more than the press?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we are talking about the dangers of covering the war in Afghanistan, and Donatella Lorch, there was a Pew Research's poll this week which actually give pretty good marks to the media's war coverage, about 77 percent approving of the media's coverage. But there was this other finding.

More than half of those surveys, 53 percent said there should be government censorship of the press during wartime. Given the reporters who're out there risking their lives, how does that make you feel that the public basically doesn't trust us?

LORCH: Well, I've always had that feeling. When you're out there, I think that you always feel the people don't like you because you're a member of the press and I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that, you know, we're also the good guys. We're out there trying to get the information.

In Somalia, for example, when we were out in Mogadishu, the U.S. military was totally completely entrenched in their compound over there and they rarely went out and when we -- we were the only westerners wandering freely through the streets, getting news, and they would come to us and say, "What have you heard? What have you seen?"

When they would come and tell us at briefings, you know, we've hit our target but there are no civilian casualties and then reporters would come back and say, "Hold on a second. This rocket hit a tea stall and killed this woman and here's part of the rocket. It's American-made. What do you say to that?" Then, they would have to admit to us and they say, "Well, you know, there was a stray rocket." So, we're there also to show them the other side of the story.

KURTZ: Bill Spindle, this Pew Survey also found that 82 percent believe that the military is releasing, excuse me, as much information as it can about the situation in Afghanistan. Only 16 percent saying they're trying to hide bad news. I think, journalists -- the numbers might be flipped if you survey journalists. But what do you make of this view that journalists are of questionable reliability in wartime and is this is a part of a legacy of Vietnam?

SPINDLE: Yes, I think, there's some of that. I think, anytime in a war there's a natural admirable rallying around the powers that are running the country, that the president, the military. Journalists get into even trickier role than they often are in terms of playing a role of being critical, of questioning what's going on. So, yes, you see that.

KURTZ: Amy Kellogg, when you were in Pakistan or in any wartime situation, is there a danger of tunnel vision? By which I mean, if you're only in one place and you're getting your information from, let's say, U.S. forces or the Northern Alliance or western diplomats; are you sometimes a captive of that information because you're not seeing the whole picture, because you're out in the field and you're only able to talk to certain people who are involved in the conflict?

Apparently we're having - Amy? OK, apparently audio (INAUDIBLE) there so let me pass that question to you.

LORCH: Well, let me try to address that question. Yes, there is tunnel vision. Though with the change of news, it's 24-hour cable with constant information, we know what's happening. If you're in Pakistan, you'll be able to hear Secretary Rumsfeld's press conference at the same time.

But everywhere in this war, there's been spin, there's spin on the military side, there's spin on the Pakistani side, there's spin on the Northern Alliance. They're the king of spin out there. You know, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and his daily press conferences before the take of Kabul.

And we have had -- it's been hard for journalists until they've been to able to move into these cities. Where they only saw the side that they represented, only saw the Northern Alliance, only said that Pakistani government is saying this or the military is saying this. And Secretary Rumsfeld is an -- I mean, he's so brutally candid and he's incredibly entertaining and charming to listen to when he comes in and gives his press conferences.

KURTZ: OK. I'm told we're now being joined by Jerrold Kessel CNN correspondent in Jerusalem. We've been talking here, as you may know, about the dangers, the incredible dangers, for journalists in covering the war in Afghanistan, but Israel is looking like a pretty dangerous assignment these days too. This is obviously not the first suicide bombing or attack in a public place. I wonder if reporters there, as they try to cover this carnage of this story, Jerrold Kessel, are also thinking about their own safety.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, to some degree that's always the case, Howard, but really, the proof has been that once there is a bomb even though the Israeli police are very quick to cordon off the area, to make sure there's no other bomb in the area...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) (voice-over): ...That the sniffer dogs come in or the explosive experts come in and make doubly sure that there isn't another bomb on the scene and they take their precautions. Now, last night here in Jerusalem it was something even if I said that that's normally been the case that there wasn't another bomb, well, that was the rule that was broken last night and it was broken with some deadly impact because after the two suicide bombers let off their deadly explosives in that pedestrian mall in the heart of Israeli Jerusalem in the west side of the city.


Just a few minutes later as rescue teams rushed to the scenes and a good deal of reporters of the local television were there, and we had that account of suddenly the explosion of the car bomb around the corner from that mall -- from that pedestrian mall and it was really to dramatic effect, as you saw, the dangers that were inherent and they were proof of what the police and the security officials are always saying...


(voice-over): First we need to clear the area to make sure there's no other bombs and then only can reporters get on the scene. So there is that danger. There is a consciousness of it, but above all you do have the sense here that the reporters are trying to get right to the scene.


And that to establish at very close quarters the very gory, often grizzly details of the events as they exploded just minutes before.

KURTZ: That is downright chilling. You're out there covering the aftermath of one bomb explosion and another bomb goes off.

Bill Spindle, back to Afghanistan; the coverage of the Northern Alliance; originally, they were kind of the ragtag, underdog force here that many Americans were rooting for. Now that they have seized a lot of the country, we're hearing reports of atrocities; we're hearing reports of their refusing to share power in these negotiations in Bonn. Do you have the impression that the media coverage or media perspective on the Northern Alliance is starting to change?

SPINDLE: Yes, at a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) . We've spent a lot of time trying to get at who exactly is the Northern Alliance, who are the folks that make it up, what are their histories. They've clearly got a background that needs to be looked into, and the stories that are going to come out over the next couple of months about what's happened up in Mazar-e-Sharif, what's happened in some of the northern areas. Those are all going to be, you know, areas that we're going to continue to look in a big way in the future.

KURTZ: Donatella Lorch, I'm going to put you on the spot. The reports this week that Time magazine editors are considering Osama bin Laden as the person of the year. The final cut has not been made. In the past Hitler has been a person of the year, Stalin. Will that selection be historically accurate if the yardstick is the person who had the biggest impact on the world or would it be absolutely outrageous?

LORCH: Well, I think and I'll talk as not necessarily representing - obviously not representing Newsweek - I think, in the past few months he - our whole focus has been Osama bin Laden. We live breathe, eat, dream Osama bin Laden, you know. Think about all the jokes on the Internet that have come out, all the, you know - at least for the month of September that was all we spoke about. So in that sense, yes, he is one of the most impressive figures of the year.

KURTZ: And there would be a backlash, I would suggest.

LORCH: There would be a huge - that's the other thing - there will be huge backlash. And the big issue is also if a man can wreck so much havoc and cruelty and inhumanity and spread inhumanity and preach inhumanity around the globe, is this something that we want to put on the cover?

KURTZ: And that is the question, I'm sure, "Time" editors are weighing. Donatella Lorch, Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem, Amy Kellogg in Boston, we lost contact with her, and Bill Spindle in New York thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up Bernard Kalb's "Back Page" on the three little words that put the press into overdrive and George Harrison finally gets the media spotlight to himself.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BENARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: With three little words, the president touched off a global guessing game the other day and the media were off and running speculating about just what did he mean when he said what he said. And what he said was this:


KALB: The target of "He'll find out" was, that's right, Saddam Hussein. The president fired off that phrase after warning there'd be consequences if weapons inspectors were not allowed back into Iraq.

The phrase hung in midair, unexplained, unamplified, which had to be the way the administration wanted it.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president left that for Saddam Hussein to figure out.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think he should see it as a very sober, chilling message. KALB: In other words, the president had just bombed Saddam. Bombed him with an ambiguity, and ambiguities are raw meat for the media. They moved in with a heavy barrage of speculation from A to Z: That the president was actually giving Saddam a way out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is allowing them to try to allow these, you know, giving them the opportunity to say, "OK, we will allow the inspectors back in."

KALB: That the president was responding to anti-Saddam pressure from his republican right wing. That the president was trying to prod the UN to get tougher with Saddam, and at the other extreme that the president was warning Saddam that he was America's next target after Afghanistan.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the president has been nibbling on the edges of this one. For the first time he rattled the saber quite loudly today.

KALB: Altogether, the president's phrase and the media's speculation played out as a kind of orchestrated duet pivoting on ambiguity. And even if they keep the world guessing, ambiguities are often put to work in dealing with sensitive matters.

(on camera): I remember a secretary of state once responding to a question about U.S. foreign policy by saying, "It would serve no useful purpose to build fences around options that would diminish the promulgation of new roadways." Compared to that, the president's "He'll find out" was crystal clear.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with "The Back Page."

Before we go a few words about the passing of George Harrison who graces the cover of the new "Time" magazine this morning. Finally, a story of such cultural significance that it even elbows aside September 11. These words from a lifelong diehard, hopelessly over the top Beatle's fan who saw Harrison's 1971-benefit concert for Bangladesh, the first such mega concert for charity:


(voice-over): It's nice to see this outpouring of affection for the lead guitarist who journalists insisted on dubbing "The Quiet Beatle." Let's face it, John Lennon and Paul McCartney not only wrote most of the songs they dominated the media coverage with their oversized personalities. Harrison's musical contributions were often overlooked by the press along with his exploration of eastern religion and mysticism because they weren't "People" magazine stuff. He avoided the spotlight in his later years, as McCartney remained the most public Beatle in the aftermath of Lennon's death.


George Harrison was 58. Well, that's it for this edition of "Reliable Sources." I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 0630 eastern for another critical look at the media. CNN's live coverage of the developing situation in the Middle East and America's new war continues right now.




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